Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Here are my comments on the book:

What’s the psychology of optimal experience? According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College, your optimal experience is when you’re in a state of “flow.” Flow is when you’re actively engaged in an activity where you’re voluntarily being challenged or pushed towards new levels at an appropriate difficulty level. When you’re in flow, you feel that time just flies by quickly as you’re so focused and engaged on completing your goal/task. It’s interesting to note that when we’re in a state of flow, we become happy. Here are some of the points to the book:

1. Despite what we think about happiness, a good portion of deep happiness comes from three main sources: fulfilling our purpose, good relationships, and just being who we are without having to listen to others; this can be found in the book The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People by David Niven, Ph. D. A lot of the time we believe that happiness comes from having a lot of luxurious material items or that we need to be relaxing on the beach in the Maldives but those are just snippets of happiness. While it has been proven that money does increase your happiness level, it only does so up until a certain point and then it begins to taper off. “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue—yet these could have been the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.” He later states, Wealth, status, and power have become in our culture all too powerful symbols of happiness. When we see people who are rich, famous, or good-looking, we tend to assume that their lives are rewarding, even though all the evidence might point to their being miserable. And we assume that if only we could acquire some of those same symbols, we would be much happier. If we do actually succeed in becoming richer, or more powerful, we believe, at least for a time, that life as a whole has improved. But symbols can be deceptive: they have a tendency to distract from the reality they are supposed to represent. And the reality is that the quality of life does not depend directly on what others think of us or on what we own. The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience. This is not to say that money, physical fitness, or fame are irrelevant to happiness. They can be genuine blessings, but only if they help to make us feel better. Otherwise they are at best neutral, at worst obstacles to a rewarding life. Research on happiness and life satisfaction suggests that in general there is a mild correlation between wealth and well-being. People in economically more affluent countries (including the United States) tend to rate themselves as being on the whole more happy than people in less affluent countries.

2. Believe it or not, getting in to the state of flow can be done through any activity. Bored at your job or dreading that traffic? Create some sort of goal for yourself that’ll force you to be engaged more in the process of whatever it is that you’re doing. Activities that provide enjoyment are often those that have been designed for this very purpose. Games, sports, and artistic and literary forms were developed over the centuries for the express purpose of enriching life with enjoyable experiences. But it would be a mistake to assume that only art and leisure can provide optimal experiences. In a healthy culture, productive work and the necessary routines of everyday life are also satisfying. In fact, one purpose of this book is to explore ways in which even routine details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that provide optimal experiences. Mowing the lawn or waiting in a dentist’s office can become enjoyable provided one restructures the activity by providing goals, rules, and the other elements of enjoyment.” He later states, When describing optimal experience in this book, we have given as examples such activities as making music, rock climbing, dancing, sailing, chess, and so forth. What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called “paramount reality” of everyday existence. For example, in each sport participants dress up in eye-catching uniforms and enter special enclaves that set them apart temporarily from ordinary mortals. For the duration of the event, players and spectators cease to act in terms of common sense, and concentrate instead on the peculiar reality of the game. Such flow activities have as their primary function the provision of enjoyable experiences. Play, art, pageantry, ritual, and sports are some examples. Because of the way they are constructed, they help participants and spectators achieve an ordered state of mind that is highly enjoyable.

3. A key element or factor to flow is production; it’s difficult to get into a state of flow passively. This point goes in conjunction with point 1 and how happiness comes from production rather than consumption. We believe that sitting around and relaxing all the time is good and it’ll bring us into a state of happiness. While that may be true for some times, consuming all the time won’t bring happiness. Although average Americans have plenty of free time, and ample access to leisure activities, they do not, as a result, experience flow often. Potentiality does not imply actuality, and quantity does not translate into quality. For example, TV watching, the single most often pursued leisure activity in the United States today, leads to the flow condition very rarely. In fact, working people achieve the flow experience—deep concentration, high and balanced challenges and skills, a sense of control and satisfaction—about four times as often on their jobs, proportionately, as they do when they are watching television. One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment. Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did. Opportunities alone, however, are not enough. We also need the skills to make use of them. And we need to know how to control consciousness—a skill that most people have not learned to cultivate. Surrounded by an astounding panoply of recreational gadgets and leisure choices, most of us go on being bored and vaguely frustrated.

4. It’s the simple things in life that make us happy. I believe that it’s because there’s an evolutionary mismatch with technology. I once heard that humans evolve at a rate of 1% every 10,000 years, so we’re essentially like our ancestors. However, with technology, it has grown quite rapidly within the past 150 years. If you think about it, we’re not really “accustomed” to the technology that’s available to us. “We tried to answer these questions with the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), the procedure I developed at the University of Chicago to study the quality of experience. As described earlier, this method consists in giving people electronic pagers, or beepers, and a booklet of response sheets. A radio transmitter is programmed to send signals about eight times a day, at random intervals, for a week. Each time the pager signals, respondents fill out a page of the booklet, indicating where they are and what they are doing and with whom, and rating their state of mind on a variety of dimensions, such as a seven-point scale ranging from ‘very happy’ to ‘very sad.’ What we found was that when people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required—activities that demanded expensive equipment, or electricity, or other forms of energy measured in BTUs, such as power boating, driving, or watching television—they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure. People were happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby; all of these activities require few material resources, but they demand a relatively high investment of psychic energy. Leisure that uses up external resources, however, often requires less attention, and as a consequence it generally provides less memorable rewards. 

5. If you break down the numbers of your life, roughly 1/3 of it will be spent on sleeping. That leaves you with roughly 112 hours of awake time per week. Of those 112 hours, you’ll most likely be spending about 35-40% of that time working or work-related activities. Having said that, if such a huge portion of your awake hours are spent on a job, why not spend it on something that you actually enjoy doing? If you look at the statistics or numbers, it appears that there are more people who hate their job than like their job. I personally don’t understand this as it makes no sense hating you life 40% of the time you’re awake. Chase after a job you enjoy doing rather than for the money. “LIKE OTHER ANIMALS, we must spend a large part of our existence making a living: calories needed to fuel the body don’t appear magically on the table, and houses and cars don’t assemble themselves spontaneously. There are no strict formulas, however, for how much time people actually have to work. It seems, for instance, that the early hunter-gatherers, like their present-day descendants living in the inhospitable deserts of Africa and Australia, spent only three to five hours each day on what we would call working—providing for food, shelter, clothing, and tools. They spent the res t of the day in conversation, resting, or dancing. At the opposite extreme were the industrial workers of the nineteenth century, who were often forced to spend twelve-hour days, six days a week, toiling in grim factories or dangerous mines. Not only the quantity of work, but its quality has been highly variable. There is an old Italian saying: ‘Il lavoro nobilita I’uomo, e lo rende simile alle bestie’; or, ‘Work gives man nobility, and turns him into an animal.’ This ironic trope may be a comment on the nature of all work, but it can also be interpreted to mean that work requiring great skills and that is done freely refines the complexity of the self; and, on the other hand, that there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion. The brain surgeon operating in a shining hospital and the slave laborer who staggers under a heavy load as he wades through the mud are both working. But the surgeon has a chance to learn new things every day, and every day he learns that he is in control and that he can perform difficult tasks. The laborer is forced to repeat the same exhausting motions, and what he learns is mostly about his own helplessness. Because work is so universal, yet so varied, it makes a tremendous difference to one’s overall contentment whether what one does for a living is enjoyable or not. Thomas Carlyle was not far wrong when he wrote, ‘Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.’ Sigmund Freud amplified somewhat on this simple advice. When asked for his recipe for happiness, he gave a very short but sensible answer: ‘Work and love.’ It is true that if one finds flow in work, and in relations with other people, one is well on the way toward improving the quality of life as a whole. 

By Ryan Timothy Lee

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My rating:
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